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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2002

Iraq attack: Moving forward?

On Aug.. 21, an anti-Saddam group nobody had ever heard of, the Iraqi Democratic Opposition of Germany, seized the Iraqi embassy in Berlin, taking four hostages, including acting Ambassador Shamil Abdul-Aziz Mohammed. The dissidents surrendered peacefully to German police hours after making a few token demands.

The dissidents - who apparently were armed only with pepper spray - were either incredibly lucky or incredibly good. Embassies, particularly those of police states, tend to be well-guarded. And Abdul-Aziz Mohammed, who is married to one of Saddam Hussein's cousins, is an Iraqi intelligence officer.

Because no one had heard of the group the dissidents belonged to; because their “demands” were so trivial; because of the skill they displayed in seizing the embassy, and because they surrendered so meekly, some think this was an intelligence-gathering operation conducted by professionals.

Among those who think so is an official of the Iraqi foreign ministry, who told the Associated Press that “armed terrorists of the American and Zionist intelligence mercenaries attacked our embassy building.”

If this was an intelligence operation, what were they looking for, and what did they find?

Sept. 11 hijack leader Mohammed Atta and several of his confederates lived in Germany prior to the attacks. If there were contacts between Atta and Iraqi intelligence, presumably there might be records of them in the embassy. If this was an intelligence mission, and anything was found, we may be hearing about it sooner or later.

The Bush Administration has been signaling that it has more to tell us about Iraq than it has so far. “We believe we will ultimately be able to make a compelling case and, in the course of time, will be moving forward,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said at a news conference in Tokyo Wednesday. This could be significant, because Mr. Armitage is thought to be one of the “doves” in the administration.

The President says he has yet to make up his mind about what to do about Iraq. But people who have been listening to what Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have been saying lately have a pretty clear idea of how he is leaning.

Critics say the President hasn't made the case for war. That's true. But it isn't time yet. Congress isn't in session. And when Congress does come back, it has appropriations bills to pass, a Homeland Security Department to create. And the President may seek action on measures to stimulate a sluggish economy. Military preparations may not be complete. Iraqi opposition groups are still squabbling. And it's too hot in Iraq in September to be running around in chemical protective gear.

Critics want to have a congressional debate on Iraq because they hope it will forestall action against Iraq. The critics almost certainly will get the debate they want, and likely will regret it.

Suppose that sometime in October the President goes on national television to make the case for war against Iraq. A compelling argument can be made from information already on the public record. The hints we've been getting suggest Mr. Bush will be able to add to it heretofore undisclosed details about Saddam's weapons programs and his support for international terror.

A nationally televised address should boost support among Americans already predisposed to support the President. Polls taken in early August for CBS News and for ABC News showed 66 percent support and 69 percent support, respectively, for military action against Iraq.

The President could end his address by calling Congress into special session to pass a resolution authorizing him once again to take military action. (The President's lawyers argue Mr. Bush already has this authority under U.N. resolutions still in force, and the resolution on the war on terror Congress passed last fall.)

The attention of the nation would be focused on this debate. Fence-sitters and bet-hedgers in Congress would be forced to declare. And how lawmakers voted would be the issue in the November elections.

That's not a prospect that puts smiles on many Democratic faces.



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